Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids
edited by meghan daum
picador, 288 pages, $26
The Dadly Virtues: Adventures from the Worst Job You’ll Ever Love
edited by jonathan v. last
templeton, 192 pages, $24.95
These days it is widely assumed that a woman who doesn’t want to have children is reacting—perhaps overreacting—to damage that was done to her in her childhood,” writes novelist Pam Houston. “I can’t refute this claim with any certainty,” notes Houston in her contribution to a new collection of essays, “because the usual trifecta of abuse (alcohol, sexual, physical) did indeed define my own.” The usual trifecta? Is this way of growing up so common nowadays that we can simply place it in parentheses?
Before reading Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids, I would have been reluctant to engage in such cheap psychoanalysis, but a surprising number of these childless writers seem to have had miserable upbringings—parents who beat them, parents who abandoned them, parents who showed no interest in them or who were absent for long periods or died young and left behind another parent too stricken with grief to care for children.
It’s true that the reasons that they say they have decided to forgo children vary significantly. And a concern that they would recreate their terrible childhood ranks pretty low on the list. Many say they never had the biological urge. They were never smitten with “baby lust.” “From the time I was a young girl until well into my thirties, I did not fantasize about having babies, or find others’ babies of much, if any, interest,” writes Anna Holmes, the founder of the website Jezebel.
While Holmes chalks this up to the cultural influences on her life, I think her feelings are not uncommon. Do women naturally want to have babies and naturally like being around children? On average, the answer is probably yes. But I have met many loving mothers for whom the answer is no. Which is to say, they didn’t feel an overwhelming desire to have babies in the abstract or spend time around other people’s children. They wanted their own children. They love their own children and, if they’re being honest, they’ll tell you they’d rather not have to deal with yours, thank you very much.
But many took this lack of a manic desire to hold other people’s babies and purchase adorable onesies as a signal that they were not cut out for motherhood. It was a sign from God—or at least from nature. (God and religion do not figure into the lives of these writers, which may bear some connection to their childlessness.)
But the idea that “nature” is something to be heeded when it comes to having children, is, in the view of Laura Kipnis, complete bunk. While many of the authors in this book have a chip on their shoulder, Kipnis seems downright angry. A professor at Northwestern, Kipnis argues that things like “maternal instinct” and “mother-child bonds” are not natural at all. “They exist as social conventions of womanhood at this moment in history, not as eternal conditions, because what’s social is also malleable.”
And just like men have paid more attention to ensuring that women achieve sexual pleasure (even though doing so may require more effort than doing what’s, ahem, natural), so men could have the same kind of relationship to childrearing that mothers had—if society demanded it. “The willingness to call an inequitable situation ‘natural’ puts [women] on the royal path to being society’s chumps.” The fact that women may have finally figured out the decks are stacked against them may explain our society’s declining fertility rates.
Those fertility rates—the U.S. is now below replacement and would be far below were it not for immigration—are one of the reasons to read this book. More and more people are making the same choices as these sixteen authors, and the challenges that will result—Who is going to pay for Social Security? Who wants to live in a nationwide version of Boca Raton?—are deeply worrisome.
Novelist Lionel Shriver dismisses concerns about demographic decline as closeted racism. We are really just concerned about the declining rate of white births, she believes. Which may be true in Europe, where Shriver currently resides, but I’m not sure it’s true in the U.S. Anyway, birthrates among most minorities are on the decline, too.
Shriver goes on to interview a number of childless women who regret that their enlightened genes will not be passed on to another generation but then say that their own individual satisfaction simply has to take precedence. Americans spend a lot less time than Europeans worrying about the “gene pool,” in my experience.
Aside from simply not having the urge, the most common reason cited by these authors for not having children is their careers. As Holmes writes, “I suspect that my commitment to and delight in parenting would be so formidable that it would take precedence over anything and everything else in my life; that my mastery of motherhood would eclipse my need for—or ability to achieve—success in any other arena.” The old adage that no one says on their deathbed that they wished they had spent more time at the office appears to be untrue for this crowd. Or at least they believe it is.
They are deeply fearful of being distracted from their writing—of not having large chunks of time to spend on it. Which is why many famous women writers have forgone children. For childless authors like Courtney Hodell, a former editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, who wrote of one friend that she “had enough kids to populate a string quartet,” one wonders whether she’s already stretched too thin.
Is there a problem with asking writers to explain why they’re childless? The editor of the volume, Meghan Daum, tries to explain how the themes they express are universal, but writers—especially those who consider themselves artists of a sort—are going to provide a rather peculiar perspective on this question. They will claim that their art form takes precedence—indeed, that it is a kind of legacy for them the way children are for other people.
Most of the writers here do not come off as selfish, shallow, and self-absorbed. But many of them do seem self-serious, depressed, and a little bitter. Which provides an interesting contrast to the writers in another new collection, The Dadly Virtues: Adventures from the Worst Job You’ll Ever Love.
The editor, Jonathan Last, is a father of three and has no illusions about the trials and tribulations—and more trials—that come from having small children underfoot. He even compares raising children to dentistry: “Everyone dreads the dentist. And it’s no fun. But when you’re seventy and still have your teeth, you’ll be grateful you went.”
The authors in this book, mostly journalists and other nonfiction writers, seem to be having more fun. Maybe they take their writing less seriously to begin with. Stephen Hayes describes life growing up with three siblings who enjoyed each other’s company so much that when two had a chance to get their own bedrooms, they refused and the bedroom stayed vacant. The fact that he and his siblings got on so well is something that Hayes credits to his own father. “For as long as I can remember, he’s drawn comparisons to Atticus Finch. If my kids ever see me the way I see my own dad, I’ll consider myself a success.”
Some might say it’s just more fun for fathers because they don’t have the same burdens of childbearing. At the same time, though, few of them seemed to have felt some compelling urge to have children at all. As Joe Queenan notes, “I am not one of those parents who only like their own children, but I am one of those parents who only like their own children plus a couple of their closest friends.”
These men were brought to fatherhood by their love of and desire to have a family with someone else. Oddly, the authors in Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed seem mostly to have separated marriage or even a relationship from children. None are willing to say (as many women have in the past) that they never found the right person. Certainly there are plenty of men and women who “settle” on the romantic front in order to have children. But doing so can make a marriage harder—especially when kids are grown.
The men in The Dadly Virtues would have probably said they were leading happy, busy, and pretty fulfilling lives before they had children. But fatherhood has clearly brought them something more significant. As Last notes, “A man with no children can easily be lulled into the sense that time is standing still. It is not. It is marching past you, relentlessly. Having a child growing and changing before your eyes makes this unavoidably clear. It’s depressing. But also necessary. Because it means that your time on earth won’t sneak past you. And if you’re living well, it helps you focus on not wasting the time you have.”
The authors in Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed would presumably respond that they are not wasting their time on things that are unimportant to them—that is, children—and perhaps they’re right. There is no way for the childless to experiment and see if they’d be better off with children. Just like there are few parents who would acknowledge that they were better off without.
In her introduction, Daum says that “people who want kids will always outnumber people who don’t.” Which, if true, is good for the demographic future of humankind. But if you had to choose which group of people you’d rather live among based on these books, I know where I’d throw in my lot.
Naomi Schaefer Riley is a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum and a columnist for the New York Post.